This will be a long six weeks in Dallas-Forth Worth as Dirk Nowitzki recovers from arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. There’s little to dissuade a Mavericks fan from seeing a worst-case scenario without the NBA’s third-highest active scorer. Let’s be up front about that: They’re going to feel as drained as Nowitzki’s knee. Dallas does not have a roster engineered with a safety net with eight new players (only three remain from the championship team), but there is a silver lining of sorts, and it’s tied to both Rick Carlisle‘s uptempo style of play and the weightlessness of low expectations.
As always, Dallas will live and die by its offense, but I don’t believe that missing Nowitzki will kill Dallas’ offense, either. Carlisle’s uptempo style of play, at its best, can minimize size or skill deficiencies by playing fast — and without Dirk, the Mavs can play even faster. Like an undersized team playing no-huddle football, playing efficiently with speed can buoy Dallas in in the interim by shaving off opponents’ advantages. Granted, Terry Stotts’ departure to coach Portland means the Mavs are without their longtime offensive coordinator, but Carlisle can maintain the style and win games against the West’s mid-level opponents — Utah, Portland and Golden State are all on the schedule in November — they otherwise might not in a walk-the-ball up way. Outside of Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, the Mavericks can run behind Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo and Roddy Beaubois. Keep an eye on rookie Jared Cunningham in this way, too, because he’s one of the fastest players and best leapers in the rookie class and yet few know about him because he played at Oregon State. Critics rightfully can bemoan how now the Mavericks’ defense got even worse (they were actually eight-best last season in points per 100 possessions) but what is essentially a whole new team renders past success or failures fairly null now.
How low expectations can work in Dallas’ favor extend to its lineup. It may seem like putting lipstick on a pig, but Dallas can try any number of lineups now with little outside pressure. For example, Dallas can trot out four guards and Brandan Wright and sprint back and forth for three-minute stretches just to try and goad an opponent into an unfavorable matchup. The team may just have to put together some variation on that theme of multiple guards because the Mavericks are one of the league’s smallest teams — whatever is done, however, the underlying good news is that the bar has been set so low today the only room to go is up. Carlisle has freedom and, with so few championship parts still running, the necessity to break from what he’s done before. Remember, too, that this is a coach who switched his starting lineup in Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals, a move to insert J.J. Barea that some (including me) have credited as providing the last punch to knock out Miami. If he did that under those circumstances, he shouldn’t feel any pressure now to tinker with his lineups and matchups. Listen: This isn’t as envious as an artist going on sabbatical, encountering little scrutiny while they search for the right mix. It won’t be like that in Dallas, even with the Cowboys’ own struggles more of a concern among Texans any given fall night. Every game the Mavericks will feel a shovel of dirt being thrown on their playoff graves as they lose, and they will lose. But by being put into this bind there’s a chance to reinvent how Dallas does business and the opportunity to understand this team’s weaknesses and strengths without Dirk that otherwise couldn’t be found with him in the lineup. This could give more minutes to 27-year-old rookie and defensive stalwart Bernard James, or Cunningham. Maybe it gives Wright the chance to play with more confidence knowing Carlisle can’t yank him immediately after a mistake because the roster will be thin at forward.
While Nowitzki is the linchpin to any dream of the playoffs, four weeks of regular-season games in an 82-game schedule is not murder on the chances of still making the West’s top eight. With Dallas expected to be in line for a playoff seed of six or lower even with Nowitzki, allowing little in the way of margin for error, a team without him won’t see its playoff hopes crushed because the schedule gives them a bit of a break. Only nine of the team’s first 21 games are against playoff teams from last season. There are winnable games against Charlotte (twice), New York, Cleveland, Washington and Minnesota (reeling from its own superstar injury). If he stays out two weeks longer, the Mavs face Phoenix (going through its own hard transition), Sacramento (perennially disjointed), Detroit (when do the young stars start winning?) and Houston (generally, a mess) in 10 days.
When Nowitzki does return, a larger concern will be incorporating him into the lineup as he works himself into shape. That was an ugly situation last season as Dallas stumbled out of the gate while it waited for its best player to get up to speed. Dallas, though, will at least have him back. Whether or not you agree Dallas can keep its head above water without him, it’s a universal truth that a lineup with the 7-foot shooter in it is better than the alternative. Dallas is about to see how many alternatives it will take to keep the Mavericks afloat.
How much trouble is Dallas in?
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